1) The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist story.
At first glance you may think that The Handmaid’s Tale is far from a feminist story. The world in which the story is set is bleak and treats women appallingly. However, it is this extreme environment which focusses a spotlight on women’s rights and lives. Whilst reading The Handmaid’s Tale I was reminded of 18th Century England, when women and their children were seen as the property of their husbands. Stripping away women’s rights, freedom and choices in a modern, dystopian world creates a scary picture of the world regressing. Yet within this extreme setting, you can see what is obviously wrong with the society in The Handmaid’s Tale and you can also see things that are still wrong, though more subtle, with the real world and modern society. It is these stark comparisons and subtleties that makes The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist story.
2) The story is packed with symbolism.
There is a lot of symbolism in The Handmaid’s Tale, most notably with the Handmaid’s red outfits. Red being the symbol of blood, a symbol of fertility and giving birth. The white wings which frame the handmaid’s faces restrict their vision but also keep their faces somewhat hidden from the eyes of those around them. Alluding to the idea that these women’s faces may only been seen by certain people.
White clothing is used to highlight the children given to the barren wives and Commanders. White being a symbol of purity, innocence, and even could be interpreted as a blank page, since these children are brought up knowing only the Gileadean regime and the girls are not allowed to read or write.
The shops in town that the handmaids are allowed to visit have symbols above their doors rather than words. Another measure to ensure women can’t read or even learn to read or write from these symbols.
The secret police of the Gileadean regime, The Eyes, are often depicted with the insignia of a Winged Eye. As though their eyes are everywhere, even in the sky (and a link to God). It is a reminder to their citizens that they are always being watched.
3) Character Names.
The names given to the handmaids are derived from their Commanders and used to enforce the idea that these handmaids are the property of their Commanders. The names are made by adding ‘Of’ to the name of the Commander. The main character is called Offred, meaning Of-Fred.
The Commander’s wife, Serena-Joy has an ironic name since she does not come across at all serene or joyful. Throughout the novel Serena-Joy seems bored and depressed. She also tolerates Offred but never really shows any real compassion towards her.
4) Comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984.
The Eyes of God or The Eyes are the secret police of the Gileadean regime, people who are loyal to regime and watch out for any sign of rebellion. It is similar to George Orwell’s 1984, where the citizens are under constant surveillance by the Thought Police with the slogan, ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Like The Eyes, The Thought Police also pose as normal citizens and watch out for any signs of rule-breaking or organised rebellion.
Other similarities include the restriction of written information and censorship. The main character, Winston, in 1984 is often told to erase certain people from the written history and to make-up fake articles to be published to the public. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is not allowed to read or write and is not allowed anything, like glossy women’s magazines, from before the regime.
5) Love or desire?
In a conversation between Offred and the Commander, the Commander states that women’s lives and dating was harder before the Gileadean regime. He says ‘they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, or had their noses cut off.’ He supports the regime by saying ‘this way they all get a man, nobody’s left out.’ And, ‘Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement.’ The Commander then asks for Offred’s opinion and says ‘What did we overlook?’
Offred replies with ‘Love’ and ‘Falling in love.’
It is true that ‘love’ is supressed by the Gileadean regime, but I think that what Offred really means is desire or lust. She talks about sexual desire and sex throughout the novel in different ways, but even when she secretly goes to Nick, a man she is forbidden to touch or have any sexual relationship with, she talks more of sexual desire rather than love. There is also the fact that she really doesn’t have much of a choice, as the Commander may well be sterile and Offred’s sole purpose is to become pregnant and give a child to the Commander and his wife. If she can’t become pregnant then she will be sent to the colonies – a certain death sentence.
There is also Luke, Offred’s former husband, who may or may not be alive. Who Offred feels some loyalty to in the traditional sense of marriage, but even Luke was unfaithful to his first wife by having an affair with Offred. Their first meetings are recalled briefly by Offred and definitely show desire and lust, but perhaps not love at first, maybe the love came later when he did split from his wife and marry Offred.
Love and desire/lust are often confused in fiction and in real life. I wonder if this was a deliberate choice by Atwood to highlight this confusion but to also show how women have sexual desires just like men.
Offred may also mean ‘choice’ rather than ‘love’, women before the regime could choose who they had sex with but the handmaid’s are forced to have sex with specific Commanders, there is no choice and there is unlikely to be attraction from both sides. All the emotion has been removed from the monthly ‘Ceremony’ where the handmaids have sex with the Commander. Although the Commander himself hasn’t quite figured out what he feels is missing from his life, he searches for love and lust by going to Jezebel’s, a club for elite men where they can have sex with prostitutes. It is forbidden to take wives or handmaids to Jezebel’s, but the Commander breaks this rule in his search for love and lust.
6) Who has it worse, wives or handmaids?
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the handmaids have it worse when compared to the wives, and I agree that the handmaids do have it worse. However, the wives, especially the ones who don’t receive children, are arguably little more than ornaments in their husband’s homes. The wives do have more freedom and are able to do things such as gardening and hosting gatherings, but it seems, at least in Offred’s case, that the wives with no children are mostly ignored. There is no sign of a relationship between Serena-Joy and the Commander, they almost appear to live as though they are housemates rather than husband and wife.
Serena-Joy is part of a society where she is a barren woman and therefore seen as mostly useless. Her only hope of social elevation is her husband impregnating a handmaid, in the hopes that they will be able to take a healthy baby and raise it as their own. Every month, Serena-Joy also has to be part of the ‘Ceremony’ and watch her husband have sex with Offred. Not only does she have to watch, she has to sit with her legs spread with Offred lying back on her, whilst her husband tries to get Offred pregnant.
Just like Offred, Serena-Joy’s worth as a person is determined by her ability to have a child, or in Serena-Joy’s case, take a child from a handmaid. Serena-Joy won’t be sent to the colonies as she has married a Commander, but amongst the other wives and Commanders, their sole goal is to obtain a child. If the Commander happens to be sterile, then these couples will never have a child.
7) Control and suppression.
The Eyes enforce the Gileadean regime, they only show up in black vans with their winged eye insignia to take rebellious people away. These people are never seen again. There is an obvious fear felt by Offred and the other handmaids when they see these vans.
The handmaids are tattooed with different numbers, showing that they are the property of the Gilead Government. They are tracked and numbered like criminals and this only serves as another barrier to prevent escape.
Women in Gilead are forbidden from reading and writing—the punishment for a first offense is having one’s hand cut off. Although Offred can read and write, she realises that young girls growing up will never be able to read or write. They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent.
Women do not have access to their own money, just another measure to ensure women have as little freedom as possible. During the rise of the Gileadean regime, women’s credit and debit cards are cut off. The author, Margaret Atwood, notes that it would be easy to single out a group of people through their cards and even restrict access to the internet.
Gileadean law controls every aspect of Offred’s life, down to her clothing, social interactions and sex life. This is directly compared with Offred’s past (the late 20th century), where Offred remembers being restricted by fear of sexual assault and the obligation to wear women’s clothes and make-up.
Gileadean law is loosely based on an extremist interpretation of the Old Testament. Even the way that the handmaids greet one another sounds more like recitals from a church sermon than actual conversation.
9) The last chapter.
In the final “Historical Notes” section, we learn that the Eyes who take Offred away were members of a rebel group called Mayday. An academic, Dr. Piexoto, explains that the novel we have read is a transcript of a number of tape recordings, discovered many years after the Gileadean era has come to an end. The last chapter explains why the story is written from Offred’s point of view.
10) Final thoughts.
I found The Handmaid’s Tale both fascinating and chilling. The Gileadean regime compared to Offred’s past highlights that even today, little has changed. Just like Offred recalls before the Gileadean regime being restricted by a fear of sexual assault, there is still that same fear for women today by just being out and about, or even walking home alone. There is still a sense of women needing to behave in a certain way in certain scenarios to keep themselves safe from men. There is more focus on women protecting themselves rather than teaching men to behave in a respectful manner. Although there have been some small steps over the years to empower women, there is still a lot more that could be done. Is it worth the read? Yes, definitely. Will you draw the same conclusions? You will have to figure that out for yourself.
Margaret Atwood on the real-life events that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments (penguin.co.uk)